Hollow Man (2000)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Elisabeth Shue, Kevin Bacon, Josh Brolin, Kim Dickens, Greg Grunberg, Joey Slotnick, Mary Randle, William Devane.
2000 113 minutes
Rated: (for violence, gore, profanity, nudity, and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 5, 2000.
In an age when computers and visual effects are cinematically at the top of their games, it's curious that a film hasn't been made sooner about a psychotic invisible man. Sure, there was 1992's big-budget fiasco, "Memoirs of an Invisible Man," starring Chevy Chase, but that was a black comedy, rather than a thriller that truly delves into the mind of a slightly unhinged human subject who has decided to become invisible. The possibilities for what could be done with this idea are seemingly endless, and "Hollow Man," directed by hit-or-miss director Paul Verhoeven (1992's "Basic Instinct," 1997's "Starship Troopers"), has taken advantage of this novel approach, offering up the type of state-of-the-art special effects that have never been seen on the big screen before. While problematic in more ways than one, the picture also holds the distinction of actually working as a spooky horror picture, albeit one that is particularly more gruesome and violent than most.
Slick hotshot Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon) is a self-titled genius, the head of an exclusive research team being financed by the Pentagon who has discovered the DNA formula with the ability to render animals invisible. Following experimentations that claim bringing the animals back to visibility are successful and relatively harmless, it is time for a human to become the next test subject, and Sebastian is determined to be that man.
Without authorization from the Pentagon and aided by fellow researchers Linda McKay (Elisabeth Shue), Sebastian's ex-lover; Linda's current flame, Matthew Kensington (Josh Brolin); veterinarian and animal specialist Sarah Kennedy (Kim Dickens); and assistants Carter Abbey (Greg Grunberg), Frank Chase (Joey Slotnick), and Janice Walton (Mary Randle), Sebastian injects himself with the invisibility serum, and although a rocky journey, the next quantum step works, leaving him exactly like the animals they had previously tested.
When bringing Sebastian back proves to be more difficult than all involved had expected, leaving him temporarily trapped in a world where no one can see him, he gradually begins to grow stir-crazy stuck in the underground lab, and begins to realize that he now has the ability to do anything, criminal or not, and could get away with it. Not helping matters is the discovery that Linda, whom he hasn't gotten over yet, is romantically involved with Matthew.
For the opening hour, "Hollow Man" is almost exclusively a psychological drama, and it isn't until Sebastian finally snaps that the proceedings turn ghastly. Whereas the biggest chunk of the film deals with the provocative question, "What would you do if no one could see you?," and gains notable mileage out of such a thought-provoking notion, the movie finally switches gears and, by the final thirty minutes, has become a gory slasher movie, where the central figures are knocked off one at a time until only two characters remain to fight for their lives against the killer.
The sudden switch in genres and tones is cause for both disappointment and celebration. On one hand, by the time the climax has arrived, director Verhoeven and screenwriter Andrew W. Marlowe have abandoned the innovative psychological subject matter that had been brought up, instead aiming for shocks, scares, and bloody death scenes. Verhoeven and Marlowe both could have undoubtedly thought of a more intellectually sound way to conclude the story, something that would have followed through more closely to what had come before, but scientific accuracy apparently was not on their agenda. Relatedly, when the murders arrive, the basic story is more or less forgotten about, in place of an "Alien/Friday the 13th" clone.
Despite what it may sound like, becoming a basic slasher film isn't necessarily a negative thing, however. The final thirty minutes are easily the most entertaining and tautly paced, and manage to even be a little frightening, a trait that is rare these days. The ingenious twist on the stalk-and-slash motions it goes through is that the menace can only be seen while wearing special goggles, or when something touches him, like water or steam. One particular sequence, set inside an elevator shaft, is especially nerve-wracking, and stands as proof that Verhoeven is a true filmmaking craftsman.
The visual effects in "Hollow Man," by Sony Pictures Imageworks Inc., are the true stars of the show, as they are rarely ever anything less than awesomely convincing. The process in which someone or something becomes invisible is superbly realized, as the skin is first stripped away, followed by the vital organs, and then the skeletal system. The computer-generated effects, which are another step forward in motion picture technology, makes everything that is happening believable, and therefore, more threatening.
Elisabeth Shue, who hasn't found much success following her Oscar-winning role in 1995's "Leaving Las Vegas," is effective and strong-willed as the heroine, a sort of Sigourney Weaver for the '00s. If any human actor steals the film away from the effects, it is Shue. Kevin Bacon, as Sebastian, is also very good, and easily has the most difficult role, as he must show emotions from only the sound of his voice (he is invisible for 3/4 of the movie). It is also nice to see the talented Josh Brolin (1998's "Nightwatch") here, as he is an almost constantly underrated thesp who deserves more recognition, and will hopefully get it with such a showy studio film here. Outstanding in a supporting part is Kim Dickens (1998's "Zero Effect"), who, with every appearance, is able to form a three-dimensional character, even when it isn't on the written page. Dickens is one of the most promising young actresses working today, and like Brolin, merits further exposure.
On the whole, "Hollow Man" stands as a tricky balancing act between deeper, existential ideas and a cliched monster movie. While Verhoeven's last film, "Starship Troopers" was merely dumb and overly campy, his "Hollow Man" plays things fairly straight, and it is a stronger film because of this. Because the characters are deadly serious throughout the horrific goings-on, the viewer grows all the more involved. "Hollow Man" could have possibly graduated to being a great, subtle thriller, but that isn't the movie Verhoeven made. Instead, what we have is a bloody, gripping, gruesome, big-budget, popcorn-munching horror movie--and it works. Scientific logic, be damned!
©2000 by Dustin Putman